Justice and Opportunity for Athletes
Like millions of Americans, Cory has experienced the remarkable promise of sports. As a high school All-American and Division 1 (D1) football player at Stanford University, Cory not only had the opportunity for a great education, he also saw that when people unite around a common purpose, they can take on the biggest challenges.
And the impact of sports isn’t limited to those in uniform. Sports unite millions more as fans — transcending divisions along geography, partisanship, religion, race, gender, and class in ways few other pursuits can. They have created iconic and uniquely American moments of progress, unity, and pride: the “Miracle on Ice” at the height of the Cold War; a wincing Kerri Strug nailing the vault landing in the 1996 Olympics; Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947; Brandi Chastain’s euphoric celebration that would spark a generation of women’s soccer players.
Despite these enduring moments, injustices in professional and college sports have been allowed to continue largely unregulated. For decades, professional and college sports have engaged in exploitative practices of athletes — practices like discrimination, wage theft, and price fixing that would be unacceptable in other contexts and that most other workers would have the power to address. These unjust practices deny athletes the opportunity to benefit from their hard work and they don’t reflect our American values.
Cory would exercise all available levers to advance concrete reforms, including by aggressively investigating potential violations of labor law; stronger oversight by the Department of Education; and through a targeted investigation and modification of the requirements of the NCAA and member schools’ tax-exempt status. Cory would instruct federal antitrust agencies to use all of the enforcement tools at their disposal, including investigations and weighing in on key cases with amicus briefs, to crack down on practices that exploit and harm athletes in college and professional sports.
Ending the Exploitation of College Athletes
Today, college sports is a $14 billion industry — complete with multi-million dollar media deals, luxury stadiums, and a thriving market for merchandise. But under the NCAA’s “amateurism” rules, colleges may only compensate athletes for the immediate costs associated with attending college, meaning that the individuals at the heart of this immensely profitable industry are not permitted to share in its success. The unfairness of these rules extends beyond compensation; universities’ demands on players’ time result in many athletes — especially young Black men disproportionately represented in revenue-generating sports — often leaving school without an undergraduate degree and saddled with lifelong injuries and medical debt.
Cory would take the following steps to both crack down on exploitative practices and empower athletes to leverage their collective power:
- Create a federal commission to advance justice and integrity to sports. When it comes to sports, we too often wait for scandals and front-page news stories to act, rather than working proactively to address them before they occur. Cory would establish the U.S. Commission on Integrity in Sports, charged with restoring integrity to college athletics, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and our national governing bodies. The commission, comprised of current and former athletes, policy experts, academics, and key administration officials from the Departments of Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, National Labor Relations Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, would provide ongoing oversight, strengthen accountability, and submit policy recommendations to Congress. Cory would direct the commission to study, report on, and make recommendations within one year to address pressing challenges in sports, including but not limited to:
- The ability to organize as unions or form players associations, compensation models, and other mechanisms to ensure that athletes have a real voice and can exercise their rights.
- Design and implementation of enforceable health and safety standards and access to health care.
- Transparency and accountability around education and career outcomes for athletes.
- Enhanced oversight of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and National Governing Bodies, including the NCAA and United States Soccer Federation (USSF).
- Allow college athletes to be compensated for their “name, image, and likeness” rights. Despite drawing billions of dollars in revenue for their respective teams and leagues, current NCAA rules dictate that NCAA athletes cannot benefit from sponsorships or receive payment for the use of their name, image, or likeness (NIL) rights, or hire an agent or business manager. For example, a standout swimmer from Stanford is prevented from advertising swimming lessons over the summer; and, a star basketball player from Rutgers can’t receive payment for promoting a local business, or even her own YouTube channel. As LA Chargers’ Russell Okung recently pointed out, colleges and universities can fly high-end donors to football games and treat them to elaborate dinners, while college athletes often don’t have enough money to visit their families over the holidays and are even forced to skip meals. Building on legislation recently passed in California, and the Student-Athlete Equity Act proposed in Congress, Cory would fight for legislation to ensure that all college athletes have the right to profit off their NIL rights and hire agents without penalty.
- Require colleges and universities to comply with aggressive, evidence-based, and enforceable standards governing the health, safety and wellness of NCAA athletes. In college sports today, there are no across-the-board standards to ensure college athletes are kept healthy and safe. The training and medical staff provided by the school is not by itself sufficient — their priority is too often to keep the player in competition, not to keep the player safe. Consider that officials from Michigan State were cleared by the NCAA of any violations stemming from how they handled sexual assault allegations against former coach Larry Nassar, even as they face serious criminal charges. Or the fact that thirty college football players have died from heat-related illnesses since 2000 — many after showing warning signs. Or the pervasiveness of the degenerative brain disease, CTE, among former college football players. Cory would develop and enforce across-the-board health, including mental health, safety, and wellness standards, in addition to requiring schools to provide college athletes with the right to seek a second medical opinion without out-of-pocket expenses.
- Bring transparency and accountability and improve educational outcomes. A recent study conducted by the office of Senator Chris Murphy of athletes who entered college between 2006 and 2009 approximated that only about 68 percent of NCAA athletes actually obtained a degree — Black male athletes, who are over-represented in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball, had a graduation rate of about 55 percent. The same study found that in 2015, multiple men’s basketball teams that participated in massively profitable “March Madness” national tournament had a graduation rate of less than 10 percent. NCAA athletes in one conference spent, on average, 50 hours a week on athletics during the season and more than half said they did not have enough time to study. In some cases, evidence points to a system of exploitation. Take, for example, the “paper class” scandal at the University of North Carolina (UNC), in which for nearly two decades college athletes, especially those from revenue-generating sports, took classes where they could get “A”s and “B”s without even attending class. While UNC faced almost no punishment for its wrongdoing, its athletes were essentially denied their shot at a high-quality education. Cory would take concrete steps to improve accountability and help athletes graduate with a degree:
- Cory would empower college athletes to advocate for their academic needs by requiring that both the accrediting agencies and all NCAA-participating colleges submit plans to the Department of Education on how they will support athlete engagement and the formation of college athlete-run organizations, incorporate college athletes into the formation and review of policies and practices, and set specific targets and accountability measures to improve college athlete academic performance.
- Cory would direct his Department of Education to require annual reporting of data relating to athletes’ educational outcomes, health and safety, freedom to choose their desired course of study, and other key measures of athletes’ well being. The Department of Education would assess this data, develop key measures, and release public reports to promote reforms.
- Recognizing the strain of athletics on academic performance, Cory would require colleges and universities to provide commensurate “lifetime scholarships” to scholarshipped athletes who complete at least two years as a member of their respective team — an idea previously supported by NCAA President Mark Emmert. This will ensure that athletes have the time they need to earn their undergraduate degree.
- Improve gender equity in college sports. Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has successfully narrowed the opportunity gap for men and women athletes. But inequities persist. While women make up more than half of the students at NCAA member schools, women athletes receive less than a third of total D1 sports-related funding and only about 42 percent of total athletic scholarship dollars at those same schools. Cory would strengthen what is deemed mandatory from schools to remain in compliance with Title IX by requiring that spending for athletes, including for financial aid, post-season awards, stipends, and school-mediated group licensing funds be “substantially proportionate” to its male-female participation ratio. To ensure that the strengthened Title IX provisions result in added investment in women’s sports, rather than cutting men’s sports, Cory would temporarily lift restrictions on scholarships and other incentives geared towards increasing participation by under-represented athletes, and require that existing investment in over-represented athletes be held constant.
- Help current and former NCAA athletes pay their sports injury-related medical bills. A study of former D1 athletes by Sports Health found that 67 percent of former D1 athletes sustained a major injury and 50 percent reported chronic injuries — a rate 2.5 times higher than non-athletes. While college athletes power a multi-billion dollar business with their performance on the field, court, or pool, they are often left with a lifetime of medical bills with little help from their alma mater. Take Stanley Doughty, a football player who left college early to join the NFL. After his team discovered that he had a previously-sustained spine injury, his football career was over, leaving Doughty with a mountain of medical debt. For Cory, it’s pretty simple: if you sustain an injury playing a sport on behalf of a college or university, you shouldn’t be left on your own to cover the medical expenses. Cory would require all colleges and universities to cover athletes’ medical expenses for the treatment of injuries sustained or exacerbated during college competition for at least 10 years after eligibility. He would also direct the newly-formed commission to make recommendations on how to better support college athletes who develop medical conditions that emerge outside the 10-year window.
- Allow athletes to attend the institution of their choice. Many young athletes dream of “national signing day,” where 18-year-olds, often sitting in front of a packed gym with cameras, choose the college or university they will attend and represent at the next level. These athletes are often encouraged to sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI), or what Sports Illustrated calls the “worst contract in America.” The NLI speaks to the power imbalance between athlete and university: the institution often withdraws from the agreement without any consequence, but the athlete cannot; if she attends any other university, she must sit out a year in addition to forfeiting a year of eligibility. And, if the student is unwilling to sign an NLI, she risks being overlooked for an athlete who will. The same dynamic is seen in NCAA transfer rules, where coaches and athletic directors can freely transfer schools without penalty, often with lucrative new deals and generous buyouts, but certain athletes cannot. Cory would crack down on unfair barriers to mobility across the economy, including by eliminating penalties for athletes who decide to attend a different school from the one they’ve committed to, and by making it easier for athletes to transfer schools.
Expand Opportunity and Justice for All Professional Athletes
- Improve gender equity and help close pay gaps in women’s sports. Like so many women in jobs across the country, women athletes cannot count on the fundamental value of equal pay and treatment for equal work. Take the WNBA, whose players earn just 25 percent of their league’s revenue, compared to the 50 percent of NBA revenue taken in by men players. The pay gap for the men’s and women’s soccer teams is also striking: assuming both teams play a 20-game schedule of non-tournament “friendlies,” the women would earn just 38 cents for every dollar paid to men. As compensation for winning the World Cup, U.S. Soccer would pay each member of the women’s team about $260,000, compared to nearly $1 million for each men’s team player. It shouldn’t require a sweep of the World Cup to bring attention to the unacceptable pay gap between men and women in this country. Cory has been fighting for pay and gender equity in the workplace; he is an original cosponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act which would strengthen laws to close the gender pay gap, and earlier this year, along with his Senate colleagues, pressed the U.S. Soccer Federation to address the unfair pay gap. As president, Cory will fight for fair pay and treatment for all professional female athletes, and will sign into law the Athletics Fair Pay Act, which would amend the 40-plus year old Amateur Sports Act to require that the national governing bodies, including the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), treat and compensate female athletes fairly and equally.
- Improve pay and working conditions for minor league baseball players. Last year minor league baseball players were carved out of minimum wage and overtime requirements. Today, players can make just $1,160 per month, while Major League Baseball, which sets wages for the minor league players, brought in over $10 billion in profits in 2018. Cory would fight to repeal the 2018 legislation and support minor league players in their fight for better wages and working conditions.
- End exploitative labor policies for NFL cheerleaders and NBA dancers. Despite working for teams that make billions of dollars each year, NFL cheerleaders and NBA dancers are some of the lowest paid workers in America. While the average NFL and NBA player earns well over $1 million in annual salary, and even mascots earn up to $60,000, plus benefits, cheerleaders and dancers are paid as little as $100 per game, and are often not compensated for their travel, attire upkeep, and required attendance at practices and public appearances. Further, cheerleaders are unable to move to another team to obtain higher wages — mirroring unfair limits on worker mobility seen across the labor market. The employee manual for cheerleaders makes clear where they stand: cheerleaders must block every NFL player on social media or be fired, and if a cheerleader is in a restaurant and a player arrives afterward, they must immediately leave. A recent report found that no less than one-third of NFL teams with cheerleaders have been sued for “wage theft, illegal employment practices, and discrimination.” Building on his Justice and Opportunity for Workers Plan, Cory would prioritize enforcement of our laws and for new legislation to end worker misclassification, so that cheerleaders and dancers aren’t deprived of their rights to minimum wage, anti-discrimination, health and safety, the right to organize, and other basic protections. He would also pass his bill to ban so-called “no-poach agreements,” which NFL franchises use to restrict cheerleaders from moving from one team to another in order to gain higher wages and better benefits.
- End anti-competitive and anti-worker practices. The case of Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, in which they alleged collusion by NFL team owners to keep them out of the league, underscored the challenges facing players making principled stands for social justice. At the same time, it demonstrated the ease with which owners can engage in anti-competitive practices that are harmful to athletes. Collusive behavior and practices that keep qualified workers from fully participating in the labor market and negotiating for better pay and working conditions are illegal — whether they are happening in sports or any other industry or sector. Cory would crack down on anti-competitive and anti-worker practices by the NFL and other major sports leagues by directing the Departments of Justice, Labor, Federal Trade Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to aggressively investigate and take enforcement actions swiftly if wrongdoing is found.
- Ban discrimination in professional sports. We have a long way to go to ensure we are a country that doesn’t treat you differently based on who you are or who you love. Sports is no exception. A 2011 survey found that nearly 30 percent of LGBTQ college athletes have experienced harassment based on their sexual identity. In 2014, college football player Michael Sam came out as gay and almost immediately dropped from an expected mid-round draft pick to almost being passed over entirely. Multiple NFL players have come forward to describe instances of being asked about their sexual orientation during interviews with team officials. As president, Cory would fight to finally pass the Equality Act, which would explicitly ban discrimination against LGBTQ people and protect them under federal civil rights laws.
Guaranteeing Access to Sports for the Next Generation of Athletes
- Provide universal access to youth sports. Not only do sports teach lessons around hard work and teamwork, they also improve life outcomes: kids who are physically active are less likely to be obese or have chronic disease, and more likely to stay in school. But too often, youth sports are limited to the privileged few. Today, children in wealthy households are twice as likely to play a team sport than those in poorer households. It’s no surprise why: youth sports are growing more and more expensive. A recent survey found that one in five families spent more than $1,000 each month on youth sports — roughly the same amount as the median mortgage payment. Further, systematic exclusion in youth sports carries impacts down the line, as higher-income, predominantly white students overwhelmingly benefit from admissions advantage and athletic aid for certain sports; for example, in 2016 there were more than 2,400 white men on Power 5 sailing, skiing, fencing, golf, ice hockey, rowing, swimming, rifle, tennis, and gymnastics teams, compared to just 69 Black men. As president, Cory would increase federal funding to states, localities, and community organizations focused on increasing athletic participation rates among underrepresented groups, including girls, low-income communities, and communities of color; building and improving recreation facilities; and providing coaches with training. Cory would also require detailed annual reporting on progress, including by age, gender, race and sport, and would work with the USOPC and National Governing Bodies to require annual grassroots performance plans that focus on minimizing cost and increasing access to youth sports for all children, regardless of ability.